Not exactly a roadmap for vacation fun
Since I had a few days there before heading south to Patagonia, I decided it would be wise to figure out something to do in the city. Every website and guide book I consulted listed the Recoleta Cemetery as the No. 1, essential thing to do in Buenos Aires and, as fate would have it, my hotel, the elegant and refined Loi Suites Recoleta, was practically next door.
Lonely Planet calls the cemetery "perhaps BA's top attraction" and every other source I consulted agreed in a chorus of unanimity.
So I hatched a plan: go to the cemetery. At the same time worrying, slightly: what does it say about a city if its most alluring attraction is a graveyard? Only one way to find out.
After a bracing coffee at an outdoor cafe, La Biela, we strolled to Recoleta Cemetery. Here I first saw the value of traveling with another person. I was ready to plunge into the cemetery, blind, using a long-established investigative process I call wandering-around-looking-at-stuff.
But my former boss and current friend—a rare if not unheard of combination—Michael Cooke, immediately entered negotiations with one of the guides hanging around the entrance to the cemetery. A price was established—$20 US for the two of us for an hour.
I was glad we did. Our guide spent well over an hour conducting us through this 14 acres labyrinth city of the dead, laid out like city blocks, marble and granite, black and white, some massive, others narrow, some tombs meticulously kept up by their families, others crumbling into ruin, while overhead crosses, domes, urns, plinths, and a platoon of angels, seraphs, Virgins Mary, mournful women and mustachioed men kept blind vigil.
Our guide took enormous care explaining the lineage of the more noteworthy tombs.
"This is the main avenue," said our guide, pausing before a tomb whose doorway was surrounded by nearly two dozen bronze plaques and wreaths. "And then there is the General Pacheco, he of our independent wars. This is the big plaque that included his portrait and all the battles where he participated as an officer, including the Cross of the Andes Mountains and the 10 most important battles in the war for the independence of Chile. The family of diplomatics and militaries: Pacheco was the other great grandfather of the President Aylwin. The father of his father was he of our independence, the General Loi. The father of his mother was General Pacheco. He of our independence, the father of his mother."
That might seem like heavy lifting, and I didn't follow it closely or 90 minutes, but gazed around, floating through Recoleta on a gentle sea of highly-accented verbiage. Yet somehow that felt perfect, and what sense I gleaned showed the importance of family ties in Argentinian society, so different from the U.S., where many people have trouble grasping the relationship between John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
We went to the tomb of Luis Firpo—who knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring in 1923, a moment captured by painter George Bellows.
"The wild bull of the Pampas," I said, admiringly, showing off my knowledge of the first Spanish-speaking heavyweight contender. (Dempsey got back in the ring and won).
The Duarte family tomb where Eva Peron's body, after years of odd international post-mortem wanderings finally found its rest, is tucked down a nondescript avenue. I was never particularly enamored with Evita, so stood politely by while her entire history was narrated, taking a few dutiful photographs. Though we soon realized how lucky we had been, that no one was there when we approached. Passing it by later, the entire row was jammed with a tourist group.
A number of tombs belonged to newspaper publishers, including a complicated statuary group that shows the inky benefactor slipping his coffin and ascending to heaven, a physical and moral impossibility. There were a surprising number of Irish names—about 4 percent of Argentinians have Irish roots; but I think I'll save that story for St. Patrick's Day.
Our guide explained that Catholics can be cremated since 1969 (close: since 1963. One should always take the information provided by tour guides with a grain of salt, as we should see tomorrow). In fact-checking Catholic burial rituals, I noticed the church "earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation" although it demands that the faithful inter ashes in a "sacred place" and not keep them in an urn at home or scatter them across a ballpark.
"So much death amidst life," Michael said, of the cemetery in the heart of one of Buenos Aires' most fashionable neighborhoods.
"So much life amidst death," I countered, gesturing to the people wandering all around.